More TNReady testing turmoil — in classrooms and at the legislature

Testing of high school students under the state’s TNReady program was suspended in many school districts Tuesday after troubles that officials say may have been a “deliberate attack” via computers.

Reaction in the legislature: Democrats called for the resignation of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen because of repeated TNReady trouble. And the full House slapped amendments onto pending legislation that would require the tests to be administered on paper rather than on computers and limit the use of TNReady scores in teacher and student assessments.

From Chalkbeat Tennessee:

Unlike on Monday, when many students could not log on to the online TNReady exam, testing began smoothly for most districts (on Tuesday) — then started experiencing trouble within an hour.

“Things were going OK, and then our students started having problems,” said James Evans, a spokesman for Rutherford County Schools. “Either they couldn’t log in, or they were not able to upload information when they were done, or the test just stopped and knocked them out of the system.”

The explanation, according to state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen: “It appears Questar’s data center may have experienced a deliberate attack this morning based on the way traffic is presenting itself,” she said in a morning email to school directors.

Tennessee hired the company Questar on a $30 million-a-year contract to run the testing program. Company officials said they were investigating the disruption, which they said they learned about at around 8:45 a.m. CST when students could not log on or submit their tests. But a Questar executive pointed to outside factors as the cause.

“Initial findings indicate it is external to our online delivery platform,” said Brad Baumgartner, Questar’s chief operating officer… By noon, after a system “reset” by Questar, the state reported that testing had resumed and urged districts to pick up where they left off. McQueen tweeted that 22,000 students had successfully completed online testing so far and thanked districts for their flexibility and patience.

But many districts already had suspended testing for the day, including ones in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, and Tullahoma.

From The Tennessean:

House representatives passed two amendments to HB1109 in an attempt to urgently change a multi-million dollar testing system tormented by flaws over the last several years. 

(The amendments were adopted on floor votes, then the revised bill was re-referred to the Finance Committee for consideration today. The same bill is pending on the Senate floor. The Fiscal Review Committee staff description of one amendment says it “adds language to the legislation to prohibit TNReady assessments from being administered in computerized formats and requires them to be administered in paper.” The other, in part, “Prohibits performance goals and measures from including student achievement or student growth data produced by the TNReady assessments administered in the 2017-2018 school year. Removes the section of code related to the state report card and grading system formats beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.”)

House Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said Tuesday he believes the security breach was an isolated incident and should be viewed as such, as opposed to an overall problem with the TNReady system.

“I do know, being briefed by the governor’s staff, that there was a security breach this morning. That’s dramatically different from not working,” he said. “They were hacked, and the security protocols for being hacked are that they have shut the data server down.”

… Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, said his amendment… will end online testing altogether this year and instead use only paper tests. Lamberth said the paper tests are proven to work, unlike the online platform.

“It’s been four years and we have had two different vendors that made attempt an to move to the online computerized format and they have failed miserably …” Lamberth said.

Top House Democrats also weighed in on the week’s issues, blasting McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education. They asked McQueen to resign.

Press release from House Democratic Caucus

NASHVILLE—The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus today called for the resignation of Candace McQueen, the state Commissioner of Education. The move comes in the wake of problems administering the statewide testing system known as TN Ready. The on-line tests experienced connectivity problems yesterday across the state, followed by apparently different connection problems today.

Education officials said on Twitter that today’s issues may have been attributable to a cyber “attack”. Two years ago, the assessment tests had to be cancelled in some grades due to a massive platform failure. Other grades had to take paper-and-pencil tests. That caused the platform vendor to be fired and replaced with a new vendor. After a phase-in period last year, the full set of on-line tests was supposed to be administered this year, and then this occurred. In an impromptu press conference in front of the House chamber this afternoon, Democrats said enough is enough and called for her to step down.

Nashville Representative John Ray Clemmons said “These tests are the cornerstone of state accountability for teachers and students. It is now time to hold Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education accountable for their repeated failures in administering these tests. Commissioner McQueen has had the opportunity to perform year after year, and yet again she has gotten an F on this test. “

“Every year we experience failure after failure and problem after problem,” State Representative Antonio Parkinson (Memphis) said today. “We are supposed to use these tests to assess the progress our schools are making, our school districts are making, our students are making and our teachers are making. It’s time to start making assessments about the progress our Department of Education and it’s leadership is making.”

Press release from Tennessee Education Association

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – TEA and its members are extremely disappointed with the failures and delays of the state online assessment system, TNReady. TEA is calling for a full and accurate accounting of the problems and how they affect students, along with proof that the system is secure and fair to Tennessee’s parents and teachers. The association is calling on lawmakers to hold students, teachers and schools in light of the failures and growing concerns of the state testing system harmless.

TEA is pleased the House and Senate are holding an immediate hearing on the testing issue.

“Students and teachers across the state are told these are high-stakes tests. Teachers’ jobs are on the line, students’ futures are on the line,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “That is the environment put upon every parent, every child, and every educator with TNReady. Now the test has been offline for two days, damaging the integrity of Tennessee testing.”

In some districts, students were able to log in, but the system would not allow them to submit finished exams. Some students were disrupted mid-exam. The State Department of Education has indicated completed work was saved on the local device students were using, but teachers and administrators must remember and document which student used which computer. It is unclear how much student assessment work was saved or lost during the failure of the online system over the past two days.

“Student morale is a key component of how well a student does on a test. Losing work, being disrupted mid-exam, and constant delays affect students negatively. We are concerned this will impact scores to the detriment of students, teachers and schools,” Gray said. “We are approaching a point where the entire testing system is becoming questionable. Students who start and stop exams may suffer emotionally or become distrustful, which may hurt concentration.”

Parents’ concerns are also growing. While the state says there is no evidence that student data or information has been compromised when the vendor said their system was hacked, there have been no guarantees the testing program protected student information.

“Many teachers are also parents, and when we hear the online testing system has been deliberately hacked, we fear for our children’s personal information,” Gray said.

Press release from Diane Black gubernatorial campaign

Nashville, Tenn. — Today (Tuesday), Diane Black released the following statement in response to another day of TNReady testing failure across the state this morning:

“For years the state has chosen to force sweeping education reform and more standardized tests into our classrooms and time and time again, the state has failed to keep up their end of the bargain,” Black said. “This week’s delays are not the fault of the educator or the students, but they are the ones who suffer from the missed class time as they sit and wait for the state to get its act together. Tennessee teachers are some of the hardest working in the nation, and I am disappointed the state continues to waste their time.”

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